Friday, February 18, 2005

TERRELL'S TUNEUP: ROCKING & MOANING

As published in The Santa Fe New Mexican
Feruary 18, 2005


In recent years a minimalist rock ‘n’ roll sound has emerged. Thanks mainly to The White Stripes and The Black Keys, we have the power duo -- just guitar and drums.

There were antecedents, of course. Back in the late ‘80s there was House of Freaks, a guitar-drum duo that had a high energy, yet very melodic sound. In the mid ‘90s there was Doo Rag, an Arizona blues twosome that sounded like Hound Dog Taylor caught in a meth lab explosion.

Melissa Swingle with Trailer Bride
One might even argue that the true forefather of the power duo was Lee Michaels, whose band, for a time in the early ‘70s, consisted of only himself (on keyboards) and a drummer.

A new addition to the guitar/drums sound movement is The Moaners, the new band led by singer/guitarist Melissa Swingle, the force behind the late, lamented Trailer Bride. They’ve got a new album on Yep Roc called Dark Snack.

Joined by drummer Laura King, Swingle rocks and roars with a power rarely heard in more country sounding Trailer Bride. Dark Snack’s very first tune, “Heart Attack” starts out with a blast of feedback screech, as if to announce, “Warning: This is not a Trailer Bride album.”

(Could economics rather than artistic aesthetics have something to do with Swingle‘s new band? “A 4-piece band just won’t make ends meet/ tonight, baby, it’s you and me,” she sings on “Hard Times.” )

And yet, there’s much about The Moaners that will appeal to Trailer Bride fan’s -- namely Swingle’s voice, that unique, laconic, cool-as-a-raspberry-Slurpee North Carolina drawl, and Swingle’s writing.

She pays tribute to folk/blues icon Libby Cotton by retitling a strong, grinding version of “Going Down the Road Feeling Bad” as “Elizabeth Cotton’s Song,” and to southern author Flannery O’Connor in “Flannery Said.”

“You can't get any poorer than dead / Yeah that's what Flannery said," Swingle sings over her distorted guitar.

The Moaners get political on “Hard Times,” which features a spacey quasi-jug band guitar riff .

“Why do they love to fight these wars?/ Hard times keep me pacing the floor/ It’s hard to proud to be American/ when our country’s being run by rich, greedy men,”

And yet she gets goofy and playful on the hard crunching “Terrier,” where she discusses the advantages and disadvantages of various breeds of dogs.

“Hound dogs are lazy but they ain’t mean/ poodles are pussy, they don’t bother me/ beagles are stinky, I wouldn’t have one/ but there’s just one kind to stay away from …”

Of course, the funniest line in the song is when Swingle snaps, “Get off my leg.”

The last song on Dark Snack, “Chasing Down the Moon,” is a slow ethereal instrumental, less than two minutes long, featuring Swingle’s musical saw sounding like a distant ghost. It only goes to show, ou can take the girl out of Trailer Bride, but you can’t take Trailer Bride out of the girl.


Also Recommended

*Sunday Nights: The Songs of Junior Kimbrough
by Various Artists. One trouble with many tribute albums -- blues tributes in particular -- is that the various artists involved tend to be too reverent towards the subject of the tribute. Fortunately this isn’t the case with this Fat Possum tribute to the late Mississippi blues giant.

Of course Kimbrough, who died in 1998 at the age of 67, never lent himself to conventional reverence. His songs were rough and often outright lecherous, and even when he sang about the ravages of age, as he did on “Done Got Old” you can tell his biggest regret was that he was no longer as credible as he was when he sang songs like “Pull Your Clothes Off.”

The contributors here aren’t Kimbrough’s blues peers, but acts from the alternate rock universe. Fat Possum honcho Matthew Johnson is forthright on the CD cover when he says the main purpose of this is to turn on more people to Kimbrough’s music -- much of which is available on Fat Possum.

I’ll second his motion -- go acquaint yourself with Kimbrough’s primitive, hypnotic blues -- though this album has enough good tracks to stand on its own.

Sunday Nights starts and ends with wild versions of Kimbrough’s “You Better Run,” both done by the reformed Iggy & The Stooges. It’s a crazed fantasy in which the singer rescues a rape victim, who later declares her love for him. It’s fun and raucous, even the slower, longer second version, in which Iggy risks the ire of the political-correctness police as he sings “Come along a baby, there’s a whole lot of rapin’ goin’ on.”

Most of the selections are done in this spirit -- loud raunchy guitars, primitive beats -- you know you’re in trouble when the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion has one of the mellower songs on an album.

Standout performances include The Fiery Furnaces’ psychedelic stomp version of “I’m Leaving,” Spiritualized’s “Sad Days and Lonely Nights,” which starts out with what sounds like a mellow melodica but builds up to a punched-up frenzy and Mark Lanegan’s slow-moving but dangerous “All Night Long.”

The only disappointments are Entrance and Cat Powers’ too precious and ultimately rumpless “Do the Romp,” and the two versions of “Done Got Old.”

While Jim White’s is more inventive in its Beckish kind of way with its weird tape loops, and the Heartless Bastards rock hard, neither actually sound like it’s being sung by someone fearing the advance of age. For that, check out Buddy Guy’s cover a few ago on his Sweet Tea album.

*Happy Doing What We’re Doing by Elizabeth McQueen & The Firebrands. Before there was punk rock in Great Britain, there was something called “pub rock.” Pioneered by bands like Brinsley Schwarz, Eddie & The Hotrods and Ducks Deluxe, championed by the veteran Dave Edmunds and serving as the breeding grounds for Nick Lowe, Graham Parker, Squeeze, and Elvis Costello, pub rock was an energetic mix of blues, early rock ’n’ roll, a touch of honky tonk and a whole lot of soul.

On paper it might sound like good old American bar band music. But there was something intrinsically English about the best pub rock, sometimes the melodies, sometimes the chord changes, sometimes just the attitude.

In this record, named after a Brinsley Schwarz tune, Texas country rocker Elizabeth McQueen celebrates the pub rock era, covering tunes by the above listed artists plus more obscure pub bands like Eggs Over Easy (which actually was an American band living in England) and Dr. Feelgood.

With her clear, strong, unaffected voice, McQueen (who sometimes gigs locally at the Cowgirl Hall of Fame) makes these 30-year-old songs sound fresh and vital.

McQueen’s best performances here include “All I Need is Money” (originally by Eddie & The Hotrods), which rocks like The Sir Douglas Quintet; Edmunds’ “A-1 on the Juke Box,” which could be an anthem for all alt country rockers ignored by Nashville; and Rockpile’s “You Ain’t Nothin’ But Fine,” which features a cool steel guitar solo by Jimmy Murphy.

And McQueen proves she’s got the knack for this style with “Dirty Little Secret,” which sounds like a long lost Costello or Parker , but actually it’s an original.

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